A Love Story Is Behind This Belle Epoque Masterpiece Headed to Auction

  • MELBOURNE, Australia
  • /
  • November 02, 2020

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Lot 9: RUPERT BUNNY 1864-1947. Portrait of Mlle Morel (1895), oil on canvas, 185 x 90 cm. Estimate $800,000–1,200,000 (AUD)
Smith & Singer

‘Portrait of Mlle Morel’ (1895) is the First Full-length Portrait of the Artist’s Career-defining Muse and Marks the Moment Rupert Bunny Turned from the Allegorical to the Belle Époque

In 1892, Rupert Bunny fell in love with an art student, Jeanne Heloise Morel, forever changing the young artist's life and work. A canvas at auction this month is the first, major full-length portrait by Bunny of Morel, painted tenderly by her fiancé and revealed to the public at the epicentre of art at the time – the Salon, Paris, 1895.  John Longstaff, one of Bunny’s closest friends and fellow Australian artist living and working in Paris recalled: ‘I remember … the very night they met, and how he fell in love with her at first sight.  She was a regular Dresden china girl with a deliciously tip-titled nose.’ 

Smith & Singer will present this landmark work for sale this November 18. Of remarkable personal significance to the artist and bearing distinguished provenance from some of Australia’s most renowned collectors, Portrait of Mlle Morel (1895) represents one of the most important paintings – by one of Australia’s most celebrated artists – remaining in private ownership.

Jeanne Heloise Morel was born on 29 July 1871 in Paris.  Her mother, Marguerite Morel, was a servant, and unmarried. Her father, not named on the birth certificate, was said by Jeanne to be Eugénie François Morel, an officer in the French Navy.  Jeanne received training in the fine arts at the Orphanage of Arts at 96 rue de Vannes in Paris.  In 1884, Jeanne made her public debut at the Société des Artistes and subsequently exhibited at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, working in oils, monotypes and embroideries.  All these genres were also explored in some depth by Rupert Bunny in the 1890s.

The influence of Jeanne Morel on Rupert Bunny was immediate and consuming: ‘Jeanne changed not only Bunny’s life but also his art, which now focused on subjects in which beautiful women played the central role, with Jeanne as his favourite model.’  From the early 1890s pencil drawings of Jeanne began appearing in Bunny’s sketchbooks and as independent studies. Romantically and artistically Jeanne responded with a drawing inscribed, ‘à mon cher Rupert son amie Jeanne’.  Indeed, during the following two decades, much of Rupert Bunny’s work comprised images of women.  In compositions of languid summer days and sultry nights he presents his wife, Jeanne Morel, and her fellow models as gorgeous, elegant creatures, in full possession both of their own intimate world and of the artist’s (and viewer’s) worshipful attention.

Geoffrey Smith, Chairman of Smith & Singer commented: "We are honoured to be entrusted with the sale of Rupert Bunny’s magnificent Portrait of Mlle Morel.  A highly important and deeply personal image within the artist’s oeuvre, the canvas is among Bunny’s most significant compositions remaining in private ownership.  We look forward to welcoming visitors to our Melbourne and Sydney galleries this November to see this magnificent painting in person."

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